Australian Traveller’s Foodie Guru Peter Russell-Clarke gets taken for a ride in the trout-fishing region of Tumut in NSW.
Roving culinary curio Peter Russell-Clarke gets taken for a ride by a poker-faced Snowy Mountain local out for a bit of mischief. Hilarity – and a bloody nice piece of local fish – ensue.
I was in Tumut for a look around and catch a trout, before moving further up the Snowy Mountains. I walked into the Star Hotel to find out the best place to fish. An old bloke at the bar, his scruffy, elastic-sided, high-heeled boot scrubbing out a roll-your-own into the scarred floorboards, had a proposition. Buy him a drink and he’d tell me how to cook rainbow trout.
“Or brown,” he added, “if that’s what you catch. I’ll teach you the way my mate showed me before he cast his last line. His name was Wallace, but everyone called him ‘Tall Timbers’ or ‘Boydie’. Boydie Herlihy. His ancestors came through with Hume and Hovel. That’s how the horse-oranges came to be growing up on Lacmalac where they camped. The explorer blokes spat out the orange pips and, bugger me, they grew. Mind you, that’s the root stock that came up, not the grafted job they brought with them. Anyway, it stopped ’em getting scurvy, just like Captain Cook and his crew. That’s why the Poms were called ‘limeys’. Limes are citrus and it’s the juicy acid that does the trick. Of course horse-oranges are only fit for nags. Not that I’ve ever heard of a horse getting scurvy,” he laughed, signalling for another beer.
“Anyway, citrus juice is good on trout,” he continued. “Now: how to cook the catch. You strip a bit of stringy bark off a tree and soak it in the creek ’til it’s sorta soft. Then you sprinkle grass seeds over the trout. That’s once you’ve swollen them in the water after you’ve crushed ’em a bit. Wrap that in the wet bark and throw it on the fire. Half an hour or so later, the trout’s cooked. Ya see, the trout steams in the wet bark so it keeps moist. Any questions, young fellow?” he asked, poking straggling Log Cabin tobacco back into the end of his Boomerang paper-wrapped fag.
“Well, yes,” I said, wanting the cost of his now-refilled schooner accounted for. “How do you catch the fish in the first place?”
“Roll up your daks and walk around in the long grass, then walk into the creek nice and quiet like,” he grinned, sucking hard on his gasper. “The grass seeds catch on the hair of your legs, then the trout, which have scattered when you first walk into their living room, come to their senses. They gather around because they think you’re a cow that’s wandered in for a drink. They notice the lovely grass seeds and have a nibble. That’s when you slowly lower your hand down and waggle your finger. Once you’ve satisfied their curiosity and gained their confidence, you tickle ’em. Same as you would the farmer’s daughter,” he winked. “The trout reckons the rubbing’s all right and leans on your finger, just like a cat or a dog. When you reckon it’s right, you flip the fish up and out onto the bank. Easy as falling off a log.”
“But if I don’t have any bark,” I asked, in for a penny now, “how do I cook it?”
Ordering another beer, the old bloke called for a copy of the Tumut Times. “Soak this in the drip tray, Clarence,” he instructed the publican who, it was obvious, had acquiesced to the request before.
Danny Glynn, for that was the old bloke’s name, produced a trout from the pocket of his Drizabone and expertly wrapped it in the dripping newspaper. He then dropped the package in the healthy flames of the pub’s open fire. “Wet paper won’t burn, same as wet bark won’t,” Danny instructed. “An’ if it chars a little, it’ll only be the outside pages. And anyway, it’s last week’s paper so you know the headlines.”
Danny scratched his pepper-and-salt whiskered chin, then poked his nicotine-browned finger in his ear, which tipped his worn WWII Digger’s hat sideways, lending it a rakish air. “I’ll have a brandy,” he said. “No, make it a rum, Clarrie. With a splash of beer for m’liver.” Then he leaned over the fire and unwrapped the steaming Tumut Times. “That’ll let the smoke get to it a bit and also dry and crackle the skin.”
He expertly slid the cooked fillets from the bones and onto a plate, then offered me a fork. The flesh was moist and delicious. In fact, it was the best I’d ever eaten.
We finished the trout and Danny left, after downing another drink. As he slowly rode away, Clarrie grinned from behind his Henry Lawson moustache, wiped the bar and put down a glass of Shiraz in front of me.
“Danny asked me to thaw out one of my trout from the kitchen and slip it into his pocket,” the publican laughed. “And, just as a point of interest, my friend, frozen fish, once cooked, moves off the bone more easily than cooked fresh fish. That’s why Danny could move the fillets off the bone so expertly, the crafty old bugger.
“Y’see, Peter, fish don’t have a blood system like a cow or sheep does. When you freeze a fish the moisture expands, breaking the fibres of the flesh and moving it from the skeleton. That means: don’t defrost frozen fish. Let the outside flesh soften slightly, then seal each surface over a high heat. Let the fish settle to soften the frozen inside flesh, then put the fish back onto a gentle heat for half a minute.”
And there endeth the lesson. The publican poured me another red wine and one for himself. “And by the way – because of the fruit from Batlow you can make a ripper apple sauce for y’trout.” Clarrie laughed. “This whole area’s pretty special. Danny won’t admit it, but one of his favourite weekends is the Festival of the Falling Leaf. Our European trees turn their leaves into autumnal colours, which rival a rainbow. And Danny loves it.
“Anyway, the tourists love Danny. And they love his seemingly pig-headed anti-advancement. And, like you, they love his cooking demos, and happily pour liquor down his lying throat while he orchestrates them.”
“Yes, but he has to pay for the trout, doesn’t he?”
“I donate it, Peter,” Clarrie winked. “It’s my investment in tourism.”